East of Bethlehem lies an enclosed area known as Khirbet Syar el-Ghanam, “The ruins of the sheepfold.” It is one of three locales in the Arab village of Bayt Sahour linked to the memory of the Christmas shepherds. Issa and I step past its gate in pursuit of deeper desert. Fortunately for us, the gauntlet of trinketmen armed with postcards, stitched bags, keffiyehs, and flutes have yet to assemble. It is still early in the day for tourists, but not for the summer sun. Sweat stripes bleed through my shirt, outlining my packstraps. We thump by, mindful of the hour.
For one who does take the time to visit, there is much to see (It is also free of charge!). A paved sidewalk ushers pilgrims to the center of the property. Here, they are greeted by a splashing fountain. It is a four-tiered assembly of ewes, rams, floral motifs, and birds. A shepherd stands on the top. He leans on his staff; his gaze is directed skyward. Consistent with other areas of Khirbet Syar el-Ghanam, the fountain is evocative of Christmas memories.
Excavations of the property were conducted by Carlo Guarmani in 1934 and again by Virgilio Corbo on behalf of the Franciscans in 1951-1952. These efforts revealed caves and related structures dating back to the time of Christ. These spaces could be used for storage, animal shelters, and even living quarters. They give the site an agropastoral flavor consistent with lifeways in rural Palestine. Above these features, a large monastery was built and rebuilt between the end of the fourth century and the sixth century AD. The original structure stepped downslope and was nearly the size of a football field (42 by 80 m). Much has been destroyed since these Byzantine days (including all but the apse of a church) and it is difficult to piece the scattered ruins together from a single visit. Still, the west wing is best preserved. Here, winepresses, animal pens, and the remains of a bakery may be seen.
Most recently (May, 2013) additional investigation was given to the site by staff and students from Al Quds University (Abu Dis). I am delighted that Arab friends from my old Birzeit University days have just been here to help with a 3D laser mapping project. Sophisticated stuff!
A final piece to any visit of Khirbet Syar el-Ghanam is the modern chapel. Conceived and completed by the “architect of the Holy Land” Antonio Barluzzi in 1953-54, it remains a favorite for many. It is easy to see why: the design, decor, and acoustics are fantastic. From outside the chapel appears like a shepherds tent. From inside, small round skylights suggest a starry night. Three painted niches visually tell the Christmas story. Don’t miss the expression on the dog! Finally, the design lends itself to singing carols. This is best done in a circle around the altar.
It is impossible to sustain the claim that this was the exact place of the epiphany. The Franciscans refer to the modern chapel as SS. Angelorum ad Pastores or “[Where] the Angels [came] to the Shepherds.” Despite this awesome title, eyewitness descriptions from early pilgrims (such as Egeria, Jerome, and others) are more easily aligned with the ruins at Kanisat al-Rawat, a Greek Orthodox property nearby. Still, the “Ruins of the Sheepfold” are well worth investigating. Unfortunately, Issa and I must save that task for another day.